In varietate concordia

I have recently come across a rather interesting website published by the UK office of the European Commission. It is more or less devoted to dispelling the various lies, myths and rumours about the European Union furthered by the British media in various forms.

While the arguments against condescending to give any sort of legitimacy to such blatant ravings are clear, in this case I find myself broadly supportive. The British public, for one reason or another, are woefully underinformed on matters European. I find myself wondering just how often I have had to correct Eurosceptics in pointing out that the European Court of Human Rights and the associated Convention is completely unrelated to the EU.

I imagine rather than being a specific piece of nonfeasance which only touches on the EU, it is symptomatic of a wider lack of political education in this country. It is truly a sad day when the broad mass of society rely on the tabloid newspapers as their primary source of information pertaining to their own constitutional structure... but I shall stop there before boring all and sundry with my objections to the rejection of the 2004 Constitutional Treaty, which was the subject of my dissertation some months ago.

Britishness and the Crown

I've always been slightly puzzled by this apparently confusion over what Britishness means today; as I recall, the issue what something of a cause célèbre list time last summer. I have always felt acutely aware of my own culture and the particular national characteristics of these islands. Although I have always vehemently opposed nationalism, I certainly do not reject the idea of the nation as an entity with shared culture and values.

Britishness, I have always thought, is one of the easier national identities to categorise. Sometimes, however, it takes an external observer to truly address such things, so often do we take what has been ours since birth for granted. As Burns famously wrote: 'O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us'

As such, I found this article in the Turkish Daily News on the occasion of the Queen's recent state visit particularly interesting. I am actually becoming quite a supporter of state visits; as the French President's recent travels across the Oceanus Britannicus demonstrated, they do a great deal to enhance cross-cultural understanding and often stimulate even the gutter press into active consideration of issues beyond our own borders.

St Andrew's House, Edinburgh

A quick mention of St Andrew's House, the 1930s Edinburgh headquarters of the Scottish Office, now occupied by the Scottish Executive. I have always been rather intrigued by not only the building itself, but of the small 'castle' to its rear, keeping vigilant watch over the Waverley railway (on the left of the photograph).

The building is a late, yet still notable, example of the International Style - one of the tentative first steps into modernist architecture. I am particularly fond of how the rear of the building softens its more brutal front, emerging from the rock. Also impressive is the Royal Arms above the main doorway, carved into the stonework. In the 1990s, proposals existed to extend St Andrew's House to form the home of the new devolved Scottish Parliament - in common with the other proposals, this would have been undoubtedly better than what was decided, although would likely have destroyed some elements of the design.

The front photograph is perhaps somewhat idealised, taken from a period when the building was in its infancy. In common with much of Edinburgh, it is now covered in a black layer of soot, which can be seen in the first photograph, particularly towards to top of the building. Generally believed to add a certain charm, this was retained following a major refurbishment in 2001.

The castle building is actually part of the original structure, the Calton Jail - I believe it housed the prison's Governor and some administrative functions. Today it is in the ownership of the Scottish Executive, although I have not the faintest idea what they choose to do with it. The above photograph is from the mid-19th century and shows the jail at its height. It seems an impressive building, and it is surprising and fortunate that the Governor's House was retained. It is something of a shame a similar approach was not taken in regard to the walls: not only for architectural purposes, but simply to keep the present incumbents in.

Dundee 1910-2030

ON AN EVENING stroll, I recently went looking for the grave of one James Thomson, former City Architect and Chief Engineer of Dundee. For the great 'creator of innumerable schemes to make the city beautiful', as he was hailed in his obituary in The Courier, his grave is fitting - on an attractive cemetery on Balgay Hill at the edge of Victoria Park: Dundee's answer to Glasgow's necropolis. Originally a resident of Edinburgh, he was charged at the turn of the 20th century with the development of Dundee into a thoroughly modern city, a task in which he unfortunately could only half-succeed.

This was to be his magnum opus, the never-to-be-built 'civic centre' which was to be the centrepiece of the renovated waterfront. Note the Royal Arch at the edge of the King William IV Docks, one of the city's great monuments torn down in a fit of vulgar modernism during the 1960s. The remainder of the area is located along Dock Street, on the site of the now-(thankfully) condemned Tayside House: one of the city's most hated buildings occupying the space where one of its most beloved may have rested.

The new civic centre was to reform the city, tearing down what had become effectively a slum in the Greenmarket area and giving Dundee its first true waterfront for the public. A new railway station was also proposed in the designs: another small architectural tragedy in itself, with the former Dundee West station on that site being again torn down to be replaced with an unpleasant 1960s construction which ill-befits a mediocre town never mind a grand city.

If constructed, the civic centre would have changed the entire layout of the city. The picture above shows the view from Crichton Street, where instead of the Caird Hall a city market with an attractive roof garden was to be constructed, and the old 'town house' was to be retained in front looking onto the High Street. An open grass area was to link the High Street to St Mary's Church on the Nethergate. Where now lie an rather unpleasant tangle of roads would have been an area to rival any major Scottish city, with a view to best them all.

James Thomson's tale was not, however, simply one of unappreciated genius: he can be credited with many of the early 20th century improvements to the city, including the eventual construction of City Square, containing the Caird Hall and the City Chambers, the building of the Kingsway by-pass road, the very attractive if slightly unusually coloured Coldside branch library and a great deal of the layout we see today in the centre.

Whilst it seems unlikely we will ever see the likes of such great plans again, the modern-day Waterfront renovation plans make for very interesting reading. It is by no means acres of well-kept parkland interspaced with classical buildings, but it does promise to relink the city with its riverside and to refocus emphasis on some of the most attractive, yet neglected, buildings. I look forward to seeing the end result... in around 2030; perhaps to raise a glass to the late Mr Thomson on the side of his waterfront.

The "United Kingdoms" of Alex Salmond

SIR TOM FARMER, of 'Kwik Fit' fame, and more recently one of the Scottish National Party's largest donors, today rejected Scottish separatism in an article in the Sunday Times Scottish edition, a week after The Scotsman revealed that support for Scottish independence was at an all-time low of 19%, whilst support for the SNP remained high.

One of Sir Tom's subjects of discussion was of a looser relationship between the constituent parts of Britain, observing: 'I don't think many people want to be outside the UK altogether'. Alex Salmond was quick (isn't his press office always?) to respond:
'One of the most exciting phrases in Sir Tom's article was this concept of United Kingdoms, as opposed to United Kingdom - why he didn't want separation, he wanted a continued relationship.

'I am delighted he is highlighting a concept that I have been trying to put forward about independence, that particularly with the same Queen as head of state, it cannot be defined as separation.

'It is a new equal relationship between the partner countries of these islands.'
Well, First Minister, I entirely reject this simplistic interpretation of equality. These islands, as you euphemistically call them, are part of a liberal representative democracy: groups, nations, organisations and collective bodies are not 'equal': individuals are. Five million should not be considered politically equal to fifty million simply because of some questionable cultural characteristics. In some ways, Mr Salmond's 'equal relationship' is entirely worse than separatism: it does not eliminate our Union, but rather debases the principles upon which is constructed.

As for this happy cultural togetherness of the separate parts of 'these islands' - I will believe that the day Alex Salmond publicly states he sees himself as British now and will continue to see himself as such if his desire for Scottish independence comes about. Until such times, this flowery idea of independence without separation will simply be window dressing.
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Previous Articles

Renfrewshire flags - A look back at the proper flags of the ancient county of Renfrewshire.

The Scottish Parliament - Possibly the most controversial structure in 21st century Scotland. A missed opportunity, a tragedy destined to happen or just an underrated work?

A Toast to Glasgow - Some views of Scotland's largest city and northern Britain's great Victorian metropolis.

A Defence of Propaganda - War-time optimism, reclaiming terminology and a nod to the fine work of Abram Games OBE.

St Andrew's House - Art deco at the political heart of Edinburgh.

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